“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Right to Freedom of Choice, Right to Abortion: Ireland's new Abortion Referendum


The recent time can be attributed to both progress and protests alike. Caught up in the progressive third wave of feminism, there are women all over the world now coming out on the streets to fight and demand basic rights that have been denied to them. Be it the abrogation of the infamous Triple Talaq rule or the dynamic demand for changes in the abortion laws of Ireland, positive changes in the gender scenario are now foreseeable. Speaking about one such victory, recently on May 26, 2018, Ireland made a historic decision to bring affirmative changes to its strict and regressive abortion laws. As a consequence of the referendum, women are to gain their right to freedom and expression, private life and medical advice and care, something that was previously denied to them under the Irish abortion laws.

The timeline of abortion laws in Ireland  

The rules of abortion for Ireland were framed decades ago, keeping in mind the sentiments of the Church under the Catholic faith, followed by the majority of citizens in Ireland. To formally codify the earlier unclear and unspoken rules of abortion, in the year 1861 the Offences Against the Persons Act was taken out in order to constitutionally discourage the process of abortion. Situated within this act were Sections 58 and 59 that clearly determined the abortion laws that were to govern Ireland for years to come. While section 58 mentioned the lifetime penal servitude that a woman will endure if found guilty of 'intentionally procuring an abortion', section 59 criminalised helping a woman procure an abortion, the punishment awarded for which was three years.  

The government of Ireland employed slight changes in the abortion laws in 1983 by introducing the Eight Amendment to the Irish Constitution. However, instead of being progressive than the already existing laws, this amendment added Article 40.3.3 which gave equal rights to live to the unborn child as to that to the mother. This act adopted a cynical approach towards a pregnant woman and severely attacked her right to freedom of choice. The amendment nonetheless ensured that abortions were allowed in circumstances that were to definitely prove fatal to the mother, the conditions for which however were severely narrowed.

Between the years of 1986 to 1988 many pro-life advocacy organisations like the Society for the Protection of Unborn Child (SPUC) and later Pro Life Campaign (PLC- 1992) emerged that campaigned against pregnancy counselling centres that guided women to options of undergoing abortions abroad. The group appealed to the Irish high court to repeal and condemn such acts and the court gave the judgment in their favour further restricting the basic rights of women to even gain awareness about their medical situations.

The judgement given in favour of the SPUC later was used as a guiding principle for the Regulation of Information Act, 1995. This was yet another measure taken by the Ireland government to restrain abortions. This act heavily criticised and criminalised any kind of information or advised given by a medical professional that was even slightly indicative of encouraging an abortion. Healthcare professionals faced prosecution along with a heavy fine of 4,000 Euros even if they were found to have advised traveling abroad for an abortion in severe conditions.  

In the years to come, several amendments were passed pertaining to the abortion laws which more or less hardened the illegality of abortions in Ireland. While the 12th amendment allowed undergoing an abortion in fatal conditions, it only took physical parameters under its wings. Unstable mental health of the mother because of the pregnancy and suicide as a consequence was kept out of the law. This was condemned by the public and in the next few years, slightly more progressive reforms like the 13th and 14th amendments were passed that decriminalised traveling abroad for an abortion or the availability of medical advice on this issue.  

Abortion laws governing Ireland today

Savita Halappanavar became the face of a major women's right campaign in Ireland as the public demanded justice for her lost life. A victim of the conservative abortion laws of Ireland, the 31 years old dentist of Indian origin, died of septic shock as a result of a miscarriage that she was not allowed to abort. Savita had requested for an abortion after she was told that a miscarriage was inevitable. However, the doctors did not suspect a risk to her life till the last stage and she was thus, denied an abortion after being informed about the abortion conditions under the Irish law. Not foreseeing a blood infection before, when the complications finally unveiled, the doctors started treating the sepsis but it was already too late. On October 28, 2012 Savita died of a cardiac arrest that could have been easily evitable.  

Her death became the back bone of a larger international controversy regarding the Irish abortion laws that pushed a woman to the final fatal stage from where sometimes a recovery was not possible as was seen in Savita's case. The laws even chided terminating of pregnancy by rape victims, irrespective of the age of the mother. Even if there were no chances for the foetus to survive after birth, a woman had to carry it for the full term and deliver, undergoing both unnecessary mental and physical trauma.  

The laws against abortion are so strong that abortifacient substances are banned throughout the country. As a result, these pills are smuggled into Ireland from rest of Europe and sold in the black market, raising concerns about their authenticity and effectiveness, along with the side effects of such drugs.  

The incident of Savita's death formed the basis of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (PLDPA), the following year which laid down procedures to decide if a woman was eligible for an abortion or not. Said to be more 'liberal', this act was supposed to avowedly lower the death tolls rising due to abortions and champion for women rights. Following the verdict given by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), this act allowed an abortion on the advice of two medical practitioners while in cases where a woman showed suicidal tendency, two psychiatrists and a doctor were supposed to provide a medical proof for abortion. Though the act sounded like a relief from the older stringent laws, new reforms were still needed.  

Thirty-Six Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2018

Repealing the laws dictated by the eighth amendment, the referendum of 2018 is a pending amendment to the Irish constitution that will allow the option of an abortion to women under all circumstances till a period of 12 weeks in pregnancy and up to 24 weeks in rare cases. With as much as 66.4% of the Ireland population voting for the overthrow of anti-abortion laws, this bill will replace the ill-famed Article 40.3.3 of the eighth amendment.  

Previous to the talks of this referendum, women seeking an abortion would often travel to nearby UK or other parts of Europe in order to get the foetus aborted. This was not only a strenuous and expensive ordeal, but also raised questions about the absence of basic medical facilities that should be made available to them in their own country. Raising such concerns, a majority of the Irish population wanted the abortion laws to be gone. However, some parties and organisations campaigned hard for preserving these laws stating cultural, religious and humanitarian responsibilities to the unborn child. In a win to women's right, the government accepted the overwhelming response of its citizens and the 36th amendment bill is now being seriously considered legislatively.


The death of Savita Halappanavar that took place in Ireland, stirred a wave for change in Ireland's abortion laws by people around the world. Having lost a daughter to such incumbent laws, people in India took to the streets in large numbers to support the need for a new referendum in regard to Ireland's abortion laws. The death of Savita was indeed an unfortunate incident that could have been easily avoided. However, this tragedy took the shape of a major force driving protests against such restrictive laws in both Ireland and around the globe. With people remembering Savita's unfortunate sacrifice, the 31 year old Indian became the face of change that initiated a historic revolution against decades old abortion laws of Ireland. On May 26, 2018 a majority of people voted for the repulsion of these abortion laws making her death not go in vain. As a result, a new referendum is under process that will pave way for new, liberal laws governing aspects of abortions and women health in Ireland.


Amnesty International UK. Retrieved on June 12, 2018 from https://www.amnesty.org.uk/issues/Abortion-in-Ireland-and-Northern-Ireland

Amnesty International USA. 'She is not a Criminal: The Impact of Ireland's Abortion Law' (2015). Retrieved on June 17, 2018 from https://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/Ireland_She_Is_Not_A_Criminal.pdf

Bardon, S. The Irish Times. 'Abortion: The Facts'. Retrieved on June 13, 2018 from https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/abortion-referendum/abortion-facts  

Carolan, E. 'Article 40.3.3 and the law on abortion: A history'. Retrieved on June 18, 2018 from https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/Meetings/-Art-40-3-3-and-the-law-on-abortion-a-history-Eoin-Carolan.pdf  

Express. 'Ireland abortion referendum poll: What are the latest Irish vote polls - is there an exit'. Ghough, O (May 23, 2018). Retrieved on June 13, 2018 from https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/964199/Ireland-abortion-referendum-latest-Irish-vote-polls-pro-life-pro-choice-eight-amendment  

Irish Council for Civil Liberties. Kingston, J (2001) 'The Need for Abortion Law Reform in Ireland: The Case Against the Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2001'. https://www.iccl.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/AbortionLawReform2001-ICCL-Submisson.pdf  

Irish Family Planning Association. 'Abortion and Ireland Fact file'. Retrieved on June 12, 2018 from https://www.ifpa.ie/sites/default/files/documents/briefings/abortion-and-ireland-factfile.pdf  

Irish Statue Book. 'Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Act, 1995'. Retrieved on June 12, 2018 from http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1995/act/5/enacted/en/html  

New Indian Express. 'Irish campaigners in abortion referendum vie for online impact' (May 7, 2018). Retrieved on June 13, 2018 from http://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2018/may/07/irish-campaigners-in-abortion-referendum-vie-for-online-impact-1811453.html  

Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Student Medical Journal. 'A review of abortion in Ireland' (2011); Paged 4(1):78-81. Retrieved on June 17, 2018 from http://www.rcsismj.com/wp-content/uploads/RCSIsmj-Vol4-Srev-Abortion.pdf